Exile on Main Street

By Rick McKinley –

Once upon a time in America, the majority of the population shared Judeo-Christian values. The average American was somewhat familiar with the biblical faith in Jesus and more than likely had attended some type of Christian church at some point in their life. Society held to values that today we call traditional, that aligned somewhat with what Christians at the time considered biblical norms.

That day is long gone. 

What is hopeful, however, is that these conditions are exactly the same conditions in which most people in Scripture found themselves. The term that best describes this situation is exile. Here is a partial definition from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “Exile was a period when the promises of the past and the shape of the future had to be evaluated in terms of a new experience without the traditional self-validating structures….”

Exile in Scripture is both a historical reality for the people of Israel in the Old Testament and a metaphor used by New Testament writers to help Christians understand how to faithfully follow Jesus in inhospitable times and places.

Essentially, the people of God in the Bible often found themselves grieving the loss of their identity as they once understood it, their place in the broader society, and their practices of worship. But God continued to be present among them. His presence and relentless pursuit of his people caused them to discover that they had been given a new identity in a new place and – a new set of practices to know him in deeper and more intimate ways.

Adam and Eve. Removal from the Garden of Eden was humanity’s first and worst exile. They lost their innocence and much more. They also lost their identity as God’s children who walked with God in the garden and stewarded his creation in a state of shalom, or harmony.

The new place in which they found themselves was a completely different environment. Now the dirt was hard and the thorns were thick. This new place was a mere shadow of the former one.

Abram and Sarai. Abram was called by God to leave his family and his country and to go to the place God would show him. Abram and his wife, Sarai, set out to leave their family, friends, and the land they had called home for most of their lives.

The title that the book of Hebrews gives to these two exiles is “strangers and wanderers.” The house they had called home was replaced by a tent, and everyone and everything that belonged to Abram and Sarai was now on the move. They didn’t even have a destination – only the call to leave and go. They would have to wait on God to let them know where they were going. The loss of place was significant, but the call of God was greater.

Abram and Sarai were given new identities: Abraham and Sarah. They were taken into a new land that would be known as the Promised Land. God gave that land to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants. God also gave them something they never thought possible. He gave them a son, Isaac. He also gave them a new way of practicing faith. They would be God’s friends and the father and mother of an entire nation from which Christ would come.

Joseph. Joseph was exiled from his family and his home and ended up in Egypt. Over the years, he rose in status from a prisoner in a jail cell to the second in command in all of Egypt. Joseph lost his identity, his home, and his way of life, but God was working behind the scenes, and no one saw it until things got bad.

Because of Joseph’s leadership, Egypt prepared and stored plenty of food during years of abundance so they would be ready for the famine. No one else did. In this new world in which Joseph found himself, he became the person who would save thousands of people. He was given a new name, a new home, and a new role in Pharaoh’s empire.

Moses and the Israelites. The Israelites’ identity was that of slaves, their place was slavery in Egypt, and their practice of worship was seemingly lost. But God heard their cries and responded with salvation. Through Moses’s leadership, God rescued his people after four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. With signs and wonders, the Israelites fled the oppressive imperial regime under which they had suffered the harsh conditions of forced servitude.

God’s people experienced the joy of escaping Egypt and seeing God’s miracle of parting the Red Sea. But this joy was short-lived. They were no longer slaves, but what did it mean to be free? They quickly demanded to return to slavery rather than face the implications of what God had in mind for them. In the same way, many of us long for the past and the certainty we felt about the way things were “back then.”

In the desert, God gave the Israelites a new identity. He called them his people: “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deut. 7:6). In Egypt, they were slaves. In the exile of the desert wanderings, they learned they were God’s treasured possession.

In the desert, they built a tabernacle, ordained priests, entered into a covenant with Yahweh, and learned what it meant to love God and their neighbor. They also learned what it meant to repent of sin and offer sacrifices to God, what it meant to pray and worship him, and most importantly, what it meant to live with God in the midst of their life together. God was present by cloud and fire. In exile, the people’s worship was formed and practiced, as it would be for thousands of years.

In our day. In his first letter, St. Peter wrote to believers who were scattered throughout Asia Minor. They had lost their identity, place, and familiar practices of life before Jesus Christ. Peter understood and used the theme of exile to help them get their footing in the new world they inhabited: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces…” (1:1).

Peter used the theme of exile with its rich history in the Old Testament to help his readers understand their identity, their place, and the practices of a new life they had been given in Christ.

In this sense, all of God’s people in all of the ages are exiles. This was the case before American Christians felt marginalized by society, and it will be the case after. Exile is the place where we live out our faith in Jesus.

For the Jews in the Old Testament, exile was their actual reality. In the New Testament, exile was used metaphorically to denote the way in which God’s people were to understand their own displacement in the world. Through the power of Christ, God was making them into new creatures with a spiritual home that was not presently here but was coming with Christ. The same is true for us.

Jesus the True Exile. Understanding the ways in which God’s people discovered faithfulness in exile helps followers of Jesus today not fall into denial or despair about our current state. The reality is that Jesus, the one we worship, was an exile. The Son left the Father’s side and went to a far country. Exiled into full humanity with the limitations of a human body, walking in the dusty steps of fallen creation, he lived among us a stranger, one who was rejected and despised. In doing so, he didn’t fight for his heavenly rights or huddle away in a cave, but boldly loved and served and preached about a kingdom of another world that he was bringing for all who felt cast out. He practiced a life of love and worship of his Father that people found unfamiliar but couldn’t help being attracted to. His was a life of loving mercy and the tangible touch of grace. He called us and gave us a new name: beloved. The identity that he himself had with the Father was given to us. Displaced from heaven, he willingly took his place on the cross and was exiled to the grave. Conquering the grave, he rose to proclaim his triumph over all powers and authorities and little kingdoms that fill the world today.

This exile for Jesus was also the means by which he opened for us with his own blood a way to the Father through the Son by the Spirit. To follow him is to experience exile. We are to be in the world but not of it, as Jesus prayed in John 17. Because Jesus didn’t fight the culture or hide away from it or fall into despair but instead preached a hope that surpassed exile and even death, we need to follow him into that hope. It is Jesus’s hope that will carry us through exile. The difference for those of us experiencing exile on the other side of the cross is that our King has already defeated and overthrown the powers of sin and death that had taken us captive. His kingdom is breaking in and setting people free from the kingdom of darkness. Ours is an exile of victory, where we are empowered to live faithfully to our King from his own Spirit that indwells us as we fight the good fight of faith and await his kingdom to come in all of its fullness. We are invited to be hopeful exiles.

Rick McKinley is the founder and lead pastor of Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of five books. This essay is adapted with permission from his most recent book, Faith for this Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as the People of God (Baker). 

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